Commissioner Lin's letter to Queen Victoria, Jan. 15, 1840














Following Emperor Tao-kuang's decision to stop the opium trade at Canton, Lin was appointed Imperial Commissioner (i.e., 'drug czar') to effect this. Having concluded that opium smoking could be stopped only by preventing the illegal importation of the drug by the British traders at Canton, Lin instituted his "get tough" measures soon after his appointment and these included the forced impounding of some 1400 tons of opium which he promptly destroyed, thus inviting the intervention of the British government at this high-handed assault against the 'private property' of British merchants. In the course of this confrontation, Lin wrote a personal letter to Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the immoral nature of the opium traffic and with a request for her own action in stopping the illegal trade. Though we may agree with Lin's indictment of the traffic in opium, it is also evident that his superior tone and lack of diplomatic nicety was more likely to offend than convince, while his naiveté and ignorance of foreign countries could only induce merriment : note, for example, his opening reference to Britain's diplomatic correspondence with the Emperor as "tributary memorials"[i.e., communications from an inferior to a superior] and his comment on the Englishman's 'dependence' on rhubarb!. Relevant extracts from the letter follow:

. . .The kings of your honorable country by a tradition handed down from generation to generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness. We have read your successive tributary memorials saying: "In general our countrymen who go to trade in China have always received His Majesty the Emperor's gracious treatment and equal justice," and so on. Privately we are delighted with the way in which the honorable rulers of your country deeply understand the grand principles and are grateful for the Celestial grace. . . .
But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians [i.e., the private traders] both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of Heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me . . . to settle this matter . . .
. . . Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries . . . Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries? Take tea and rhubarb, for example; the foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them [ true, perhaps, for the Englishman’s love of a 'cuppa' but certainly not for those red stalks which the Chinese thought essential for the proper bowel movements of the 'barbarians']. If China cuts off these benefits with no sympathy for those who are to suffer, then what can the barbarians rely upon to keep themselves alive? Moreover the woolens . . . of foreign countries cannot be woven unless they obtain Chinese silk . . . As for other foodstuffs, beginning with candy, ginger, cinnamon, and so forth, and articles for use, beginning with silk, satin, chinaware, and so on, all the things that must be had by foreign countries are innumerable. On the other hand, articles coming from the outside to China can only be used as toys. We can take them or get along without them. Since they are not needed by China, what difficulty would there be if we closed the frontier and stopped the trade? Nevertheless our Celestial Court lets tea, silk, and other goods be shipped without limit and circulated everywhere without begrudging it in the slightest. This is for no other reason but to share the benefit with the people of the whole world.

. . . Only in several places of India under your control . . . has opium been planted from hill to hill . . . For months and years work is continued in order to accumulate the poison. The obnoxious odor ascends, irritating Heaven and frightening the spirits. Indeed you, O Sovereign, can eradicate the opium plant in these places, hoe over the fields entirely, and sow in its stead the five grains. Anyone who dares again attempt to plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. This really will be a great, benevolent policy that will increase the common weal and get rid of evil. For this, Heaven must support you and the spirits must bring you good fortune, prolonging your old age and extending your descendants. All will depend on this act . . . .

Now we have set up regulations governing the Chinese people. He who sells opium shall receive the death penalty and he who smokes it also the death penalty. Now consider this: if the barbarians do not bring opium, then how can the Chinese people resell it, and how can they smoke it? The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? . . . Therefore in the new regulations, in regard to those barbarians who bring opium to China the penalty is fixed at decapitation or strangulation. This is what is called getting rid of a harmful thing on behalf of mankind.

Moreover we have found that [on Apr 9, 1839] Consul Elliot of your nation, because the opium prohibition law was very stern and severe, petitioned for an extension of the time limit . . . Now we . . have received the extraordinary Celestial grace of His Majesty the Emperor, who has redoubled his consideration and compassion. All those who within the period of the coming one year (from England) or six months (from India) bring opium to China by mistake, but who voluntarily confess and completely surrender their opium, shall be exempt from their punishment. After this limit of time, if there are still those who bring opium to China then they will plainly hve committed a willful violation and shall at once be executed according to law, with absolutely no clemency or pardon. This may be called the height of kindness and the perfection of justice.

Our Celestial Dynasty rules over and supervises the myriad states, and surely possesses unfathomable spiritual dignity. Yet the Emperor cannot bear to execute people without having first tried to reform themn by instruction. Therefore he especially promulgates these fixed regulations. The barbarian merchants of your country, if they wish to do business for a long period, are required to obey our statutes respectfully and to cut off permanently the source of opium. They must by no means try to test the effectiveness of the law with their lives. May you, O King, check your wicked and sift out your vicious people before they come to China, in order to guarantee the peace of your nation, to show further the sincerity of your politeness and submissiveness, and to let the two countries enjoy together the blessings of peace. . . After receiving this dispatch will you immediately give us a prompt reply regarding the details and circumstances of your cutting off the opium traffic. Be sure not to put this off . . . [Note: Apparently Lin decided against mailing the letter to London and, in the absence of any British ambassador who might deliver it personally, he opted to have it published in Canton, expecting that a returning ship's captain would manage to get it its contents to the authorities in London. This did not happen, however.]